The word dysphemism isn't one you're likely to hear used in everyday conversation. It's an unusual term, but it actually describes a common linguistic occurrence. Any time you hear a person using derogatory terminology to substitute for a word or phrase that isn't inherently negative or ugly, that is an example of dysphemism.
Dysphemism is simply the substitution of a negative, insulting, derogatory term for something that is neutral in meaning. Dysphemism can take several forms from negative slang or insulting phrases to snide expressions or curse words.
Dysphemisms are often confused with euphemisms, but these two terms describe different figures of speech. They are similar in that both dysphemisms and euphemisms provide readers with an indirect way to describe something rather than using literal terminology. That's where their similarity ends.
- A euphemism is a nicer way of saying something. It's like glossing over the real words for something and using more polite terminology instead. Using a euphemism is generally intended to paint a more positive picture than the actual description would have done. There are many examples of euphemism in literature.
- A dysphemism is derogatory by definition. While this type of impression substitutes for something else, the purpose isn't to make it seem better than it really is. Instead, this type of terminology is inherently negative or harsh. This type of expression can come across as disrespectful or rude.
While euphemisms for death or dying may include softer terminology like "passed away" or departed, dysphemisms paint a much more stark, harsh picture. They're more negative than simply saying that someone passed away or is no longer with you, which would be examples of euphemisms.
- bit the dust
- bite the big one
- bought the farm
- dead as a doornail
- pushing daisies
- six feet under
- swimming with the fishes
- worm food
It's very common for people to use dysphemisms to express their beliefs that someone isn't particularly intelligent.
- a sandwich short of a picnic
- dumb as a rock
- dumb as a box (or bag) of rocks
- not the sharpest knife in the drawer
- not the sharpest pencil in the box
- the elevator doesn't reach the top floor
- the lights are on but nobody's home
- two fries short of a Happy Meal
Not only will people use nasty names or sayings for people they perceive as not smart enough, but they'll also use such derogatory language for those they see as being too smart or too studious.
- teacher's pet
People often use dysphemisms as put-downs for those they see as being different from themselves or from the norm.
- a** - for someone who is behaving in a mean, rude or sneaky way
- do-gooder - for someone very focused on helping the poor or social causes
- cheater - for someone who is unfaithful to a partner
- crackhead - for one who uses certain types of illegal drugs
- fag - for a male who is homosexual
- geezer - for an older person
- gold digger - for someone who seeks out wealthy dating or marriage partners
- illegal - for someone seeking asylum in a place other than the country of which they are a citizen
- lezzo or lesbo - for someone who is a lesbian
- narc - for someone who tells the truth
- over the hill - for being over a certain age
- pill-billy - for someone who is addicted to opioids
- snitch - for someone who speaks up
- sh**head - for someone who does something that displeases you
- tub of lard - for an overweight person
- two-faced - for someone who is nice to people but says ugly things about them to other people
- two-timer - for someone who cheats on a romantic partner
- welfare mother - for a single mother struggling to make ends meet
Have you ever heard anyone refer to certain occupations with derogatory terminology? Then you've definitely been exposed to dysphemisms.
- ambulance chaser - for a personal injury attorney
- bag man - for a lawyer, owner, or HR person who offers a worker a settlement in exchange for not suing the company
- grease monkey - for someone who works as a mechanic or machinist
- hack - for someone who pretends to be good at their job but is not
- hatchet man - for someone whose job involves notifying people that they are no longer employed
- head-shrinker - for a psychologist or psychiatrist
- manny - for a man who works in child care
- pencil pusher - for an accountant or other office worker
- pig - for a law enforcement officer
- popo - for the police
- quack - for a doctor that one thinks may not be providing sound advice
- vulture - for a salesperson
It's not unusual for people to use derogatory terms to describe or explain certain actions or behaviors. They often do so to convey sarcasm or because they think it's funny.
- backed up worse than the Hoover Dam - for constipated
- blow chunks - instead of throwing up
- blow smoke up your arse - for making an insincere compliment
- full of sh** - for talking about things about which one does not have sufficient knowledge or expertise
- making a deposit in the porcelain bank - for a bowel movement
- pull the wool over someone's eyes - for hiding the truth from someone who really doesn't want to know it
- sold one a bill of goods - for convincing someone of information that isn't true or entirely accurate
- sh** a brick - for a bowel movement
- spending like a drunken sailor - for excessive financial expenditures
It's also common for people to use dysphemisms as derogatory descriptions of places, items or other nouns.
- bad rug - instead of toupee
- boondocks - for a rural area
- crapper - for a toilet or bathroom
- dump - for a residence, garage or other location that is messy or in disrepair
- loony bin - for a psychiatric care facility
- mcmansion - for a large, elaborate-looking yet not well-constructed dwelling
- out in the boonies - for a rural area
- snail mail - for correspondence sent via postal mail
- sh**hole -for a residence or other structure that is in run-down condition
- the projects (sometimes abbreviated to the pjs) - for a low-income, government-subsidized housing complex
Dysphemisms often find their way into politics. They are sometimes used as political jargon to describe politicians or to negatively brand certain policies or political views.
- anchor baby - for a U.S. born child born to a mother who is not lawfully present in the country
- banana republic - for an impoverished region operated by a corrupt government and controlled by foreign interests
- birther - for someone who doesn't believe that former President Obama was born in the United States
- baby killer - for someone who believes abortion should be legal
- agitator - for someone who is seeking to build support for a cause or position
- capitalist pig - for those who tend to support conservative economic policies
- firebrand - for a politician who is very outspoken with extreme views
- pro-birth - for someone who believes abortion should be illegal but doesn't also support social programs to help the poor
- radical socialist agenda - for policies that tend to be supported by democrats
- socialized medicine - for a system that would involve ensuring that everyone has access to medical care
To get a sense of how these figures of speech sneak into everyday language, review some examples of dysphemisms in sentences.
- One of my coworkers bit the dust.
- I wish my brother would quit going to that quack who gives him bad medical advice.
- My cousin is such a bookworm. She cares more about being the teacher's pet than having fun.
- My sister's best friend is as dumb as a rock. she is definitely not the sharpest pencil in the box.
- My parents want to sell our house in town and move way out to the boondocks where there is nothing for me to do.
- The vulture who talked you into buying this old car really sold you a bill of goods.
- There is no way I am moving to some banana republic with you because you want to be some kind of do-gooder.
- You are such a dipstick. How could you let that person pull the wool over your eyes?
- That person needs to be locked up in the loony bin.
- Can you believe how much weight Bobbie gained? I never thought he'd become such a tub of lard.
Dysphemisms provide a creative way to convey meaning when your intent is to disparage, belittle or insult a person. These terms are informal expressions used as put-downs in the English language. If you're looking for other informal terms that aren't inherently negative, consider opting for slang or jargon. Start by reviewing some modern American slang words for ideas of things to say. For a historical perspective, explore slang words from the past and today. From there, consider enhancing your casual vocabulary with some English colloquialisms.